One day, back in January, the leader of the Sheriff’s Office Community Services unit, Capt. Raheem Aleem, decided to eat at Denny’s restaurant.
He likes pancakes, but for that particular lunch, Aleem ordered a Philly cheese steak omelet and his eggs were served by a young, friendly, smiling woman — Jessica Cruz Alfaro.
After he cleaned his plate and she’d cleared his place, Aleem and the server started to chat.
“I want to do something for my community,” Alfaro told Aleem.
Aleem had just taken on a new role at work, filling the Sheriff’s Office’s newly created position of Hispanic community liaison and Alfaro’s comment sparked an idea.
Aleem knew just how Alfaro help her community.
He offered Alfaro the chance to volunteer to become the first ever “navigator” at the Durham County Justice Center.
Three days a week, Alfaro sits behind a simple table in the courthouse lobby, there to help guide anyone get where they want to, need to or have to go inside the imposing 11-floor courthouse.
When Alfaro sees a befuddled visitor with wandering eyes searching for signs or panning for an elevator, she approaches without caution, wearing a sunny smile.
“How can I help? Do you know where you’re going?” Alfaro asks. “What are you here for?”
During her first 16 days as navigator, Alfaro helped 933 people find the correct courtrooms, clerks offices and other varied sites in the building, Aleem said.
Many of the people Alfaro helps are not native English speakers. Many only speak Spanish. But Alfaro is fluent in Spanish. She was born in the capital of of El Salvador and moved to the United States on May 7, 2007 at age 10.
A pair of Spanish-speaking Hispanic women recently entered the courthouse wishing to change the legal names of two children in tow.
“I went up to the second floor with them and helped with translating,” Alfaro said. “That would’ve been Special Proceedings, on the second floor —2400.”
Stress and courthouses can even turn typically courteous Samaritans curt.
“A lady had come in here and she asked about a judge’s name but I don’t have time to learn the judges’ names. She said, ‘Why are you here? You don’t know,’” Alfaro said. “And she left. But, I said you know, ‘I’m sorry.’ She was speaking a little louder than usual.”
Seated behind her table in the courthouse lobby recently, Alfaro agreed to answer a series of questions demonstrating her knowledge and response technique.
“Let’s say, I have a traffic violation. Where do I go?” she was asked.
“You would go to the third floor,” Alfaro answered. “And when you get off the elevator, you would make a left and once you get up there, there is a roster on the wall. Find your name and you could find what courtroom you needed to be in.”
“Where do I get a gun permit?” she was asked.
“That would be the Sheriff’s Office,” Alfaro answered. “So, if you’re going to the Sheriff’s Office, you would go down the hallway and make the first right and that would be the Sheriff’s Office.”
“What do I do once I get there?” she was asked. “Because, I really want a gun but I’m scared of the sheriff.”
“Well, once you get there, you’d talk to the clerk,” Alfaro answered. “And she’d give you the information you need.”
She was asked, “What’s the most common question that you’re asked?”
“People checking their court date,” Alfaro answered. “I tell them, if you go down this hallway, the fourth door, on the right.”
“If I’ve killed someone, where do I go?” she was asked.
“Superior Court on the seventh floor,” Alfaro answered.
“A lot of people who come to court, don’t know what courtroom they’re supposed to be in, don’t know where they’re supposed to go, this, that and the other,” Aleem said. “They come into court, can’t find their way, get kind of flustered and they leave. Next thing you know, they get a warrant for not appearing, when they did come — just didn’t know where they needed to go.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Alfaro volunteers her time in the Durham County Justice Center lobby from 8:30 to 11:30 a.m. Mondays, Tuesdays and Wednesdays.